Jekka's guide to organic gardening & maintaining soil health

Jekka's guide to organic gardening & maintaining soil health

Your garden, allotment or balcony is your own little patch of the world to look after. Organic gardening is essential in ensuring that the life of our soil and plants are as healthy as can be and that in return we are replenishing our earth rather than degrading it.

For over the past 35+ years all of the herbs grown at Jekka’s have been raised using organic and sustainable principles. Organic practices were started primarily because Jekka had two small children and she did not want the risk of them eating any harmful chemicals. As a result of following organic principals, we have a remarkable biodiversity on the farm here in South Gloucestershire which is a testament to the practices we have put in place.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) refers to organic gardening as “the cultivation systems which make minimal use of manufactured and chemical substances. It has a broader philosophy taking a holistic view of gardening and emphasises the importance of interdependent life forms.”

The importance of organic gardening and the practices that it encompasses have been pushed forward in recent years with more studies and information available about the degradation to our land that humans have caused through the use of harsh chemicals and unsustainable practices. As a result, many people have now moved towards organic practices and understand more about the importance of good soil health.  This understanding also relates to people’s awareness of their health & well-being as well as the importance of eating locally and sustainably.

Although we started organic gardening to reduce chemical use, it is more than just this. It is also vitally important that we feed our soils and provide a robust and diverse base for our plants to grow.  Soil should be rich with life and full of life such as worms, bacteria, fungi and other microscopic organism.  Organic practices teach you to feed the soil rather than the plant to ensure the best results for vegetables, fruit and flowers. At Jekka’s we use a peat free compost which is a mix made for us to Jekka's recipe. It contains loam, grit, wood fibre and composted bark. Our compost is vegan and, although not certified, it is organic. Therefore, it provides the robust and diverse base for our plants to grow.

Jekka’s top 3 tips for what you can do to be an organic gardener

1. Care for your soil

A bit like humans, in order to maintain good soil health, we must feed it nutrients. This is often in the form of organic matter; manure, mushroom compost and leaf mulch, just some examples. It is often best to add organic matter to your soil through the winter or early spring so it has time to be broken down by organisms to create a good soil base prior to planting.

Your soil structure can also be enhanced and maintained by planting perennials that provide cover through the year, planting hedgerows or ley strips and by encouraging wildlife such as earthworms, which act as ‘ecosystem engineers’ and aerate the soil as they burrow.

Another approach to maintaining soil health is to employ reduced till or no-dig regimes that can also help to prevent the loss of organic matter.

If you are growing in containers or on a small scale it’s a good idea to feed your plants through the growing season. We use Maxicrop liquid seaweed which is an organic plant feed which contains algae to help plants grow from seed to mature plant and will best work by following the mantra “Feed on Fridays”. You can also try making your own Comfrey feed with Jekka’s recipe below.

Jekka’s recipe for Comfrey feed

Comfrey has very deep roots, which means it extracts large quantities of nutrients from far below the soil’s surface, inaccessible to most other plants. These nutrients are stored in its leaves. By harvesting the leaves and letting them break down, you will have a rich, dark, nutrient-rich plant food to use around the garden. It’s especially rich in potassium, making it the ideal feed to promote flowers and fruits in a range of plants, including tomatoes.

Equipment:

  • Comfrey leaves from an established plant
  • Large bucket, or tub trug (ideally with a lid)
  • Stone, to weigh the leaves down
  • Recycled bottles, such as old milk bottles
  • Watering can

Steps:

    1. Harvest the leaves from an establish Comfrey plant (wear gloves if necessary)
    2. Remove flowers and tough stems
    3. Chop up the leaves and pack them tightly into a water-tight container; ideally one with a lid.
    4. Weigh down the leaves with a brick
    5. The Comfrey leaves will slowly break down, releasing a smelly brown liquid. Hence why it is useful to have a lid!
    6. Pour off any liquid into a bottle and store in a cool, dark place. Top up the container with fresh leaves.
    7. To use, dilute the collected liquid at a rate of one part Comfrey to 10 parts water – the darker it is, the more you will need to dilute it.

      2. Grow with the seasons

      In order to minimise the risk from pests and diseases without the use of chemicals it is important to plan what to grow and where to plant it. For example, using shade loving plants in the darker corners of your garden or positioning the plants that require lots of watering are in the areas of your garden that receive the most moisture.

      With careful planning you will ensure your plants are the happiest they can be with the least impact on natural resources. Check out Jekka’s top 10 herbs for sun, semi-shade, dry & damp conditions for some ideas.

      Maintaining your garden throughout the entire year is an important part of organic gardening in many ways. It allows you to look out (and hopefully catch!) any pests and diseases that might occur throughout the colder months and gives you the chance to treat them before they affect the health of your plant and surrounding soil. It can also encourage you to plant a wider diversity of plants as you’ll think more about what will (or won’t) be growing through the winter months. As previously mentioned perennials are wonderful resources for wildlife when there’s little else available on the ground.

      For advice on growing and maintaining herbs through the seasons, check out ‘Jekka’s Seasonal Tips’ blog series, which includes what to do in your herb garden in early spring, late spring, summer and autumn & winter. Together they form the basis of Jekka’s guide on how to grow herbs.

      3. Avoid harsh chemicals and pesticides

      Whilst they are incredibly effective at eliminating their target pests and diseases, they often also eradicate all other life forms, completely depleting any biodiversity. Some also use chemicals to attract the pest to it in the first place and therefore, once used, you will find the pest keeps coming back.

      Pesticides also leach into our ground water and eventually into our water sources making them potentially dangerous to humans as well. To be organic you must avoid all pesticides completely unless they have been certified organic. Luckily for us there are now lots of organic products to choose from.

      At Jekka’s, our favourites are SB plant invigorator and Maxicrop liquid seaweed . Jekka’s secret recipe is 2ml maxi crop, 2 ml sb invigorator and 5 gms potassium bicarb (or baking soda) and applying it to your infected herb or plant as a spray. Check out our gardeners range for more of our recommended products as well as the bundle we now offer through mail order.

      Companion planting, as well as planting a diverse range of species, can also bring in good pollinators and the insects that work like pesticides.

      Planning for a diverse and vigorous garden with good soil and plant health will help you on your way to becoming a sustainable, organic gardener.

      There is a lot to learn about organic gardening; we have touched on a few important topics but we encourage everyone, to put in some time to learn about organic principles and how they can benefit not only you but the birds, bees and wildlife that create our wonderful gardens - small and large.

      If you’re keen to learn more, why not check out Jekka’s HerbFest. A weekend dedicated to herb lovers and growers of all kinds.